"It's always a menu of bad options and once you come to power, you realise that even out of these bad options, none are practical and haven't been tried before"
So said a former diplomat once posted at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, responding to a query on how India should respond to Pakistan's cross-border terrorism designs. He should know, for he was posted in Pakistan during the 26 November, 2008 Mumbai attacks.
The diplomat's statement becomes even more pertinent as India searches for a 'fitting response' after the Pakistan-based militants — whether they belong to Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad is as-yet-unclear because there is conflicting evidence on that front — carried out one of the worst attacks in recent memory on the Indian Army's brigade headquarters in the Uri sector (Baramulla district of Jammu and Kashmir). At the time of writing, the attack had claimed the lives of 20 troops.
In the aftermath of the attack, the government has received plenty of unsolicited advice from retired military officers, the self-proclaimed strategic analysts, and thousands on social media. It is not necessary to debate and ponder these options in the public domain, but it is necessary to understand the compulsions and considerations to which successive Indian governments since 1999 — when India and Pakistan declared their nuclear capabilities — have had to pay attention while reacting to Pakistan's persistent treachery.
The first consideration is Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the constant threat that it will use nukes against India in case there is any violation of Islamabad's territorial sovereignty. It doesn't help matters that Pakistan has consistently refused to adhere to the 'no first use' policy when it comes to nuclear weapons, while India has publicly declared its compliance. This essentially means that Indian policymakers have to constantly look at options — strategic and tactical — so that no response climbs on the 'escalation ladder' and sparks nuclear armageddon in the region.
So the most obvious 'fitting response' — the favourite term on social media — of 'war with Pakistan' becomes by this consideration, the absolute last response. Sorry folks, it is not an option — at least, not among the top five options that the government deems viable.
Although many ministers and advisors to the government have talked of 'an eye for an eye' response, the astute will understand that this rhetoric is intended more as a way to satiate the enraged public, rather than something that makes it to the prime minister's desk. And that is even after the Indian Army carried out a successful cross-border raid in Myanmar, in response to the NSCN-K insurgent group's ambush of the Army troops in Manipur, in June last year.
The second consideration is Indian public opinion — which matters a lot more when the country is approaching an election season. If covert action was to be pursued — let's say in Balochistan or through the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — and inflict pain on Pakistan, how do you convince Indian citizens that it is indeed India that has carried out these actions in response to the Pakistani Army and ISI's machinations?
This itself leads to the third and fourth consideration, and not necessarily in that order.
The pursuit of covert action — military and intelligence — that can interfere in other country's internal affairs is an important tool of a statecraft, pursued by every state with varying intensity. However in the Westphalian order — on which this current system of States is based — the pursuit of covert actions has been undertaken either by great powers (read the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Israel) or by States that essentially have no hope of making it to the high table (read Turkey, North Korea and Pakistan among others).
India will need to show Pakistan that it has the potential to inflict pain on the latter through any of its options
As a State that is aspiring to sit at the high table of global politics, India's response is unfortunately constrained by this compulsion. Maintaining the image of a 'responsible nation' is of utmost importance to India, as much as maintaining its territorial integrity. More so when you are surrounded by 'friends' like the United States and China who are carefully judging your actions and calibrating their strategies accordingly. This may sound hypocritical but alas, that is the reality of today's international politics.
The fourth consideration is that despite all that is said about covert action, India will need to show Pakistan that it has the potential to inflict pain on the latter through any of its options — whether the Balochistan issue or the TTP's relentless violence, and that should deter Pakistan from propping up anti-India terrorist groups. Yet, the whole point of deterrence is that it should be credible and clearly identified. If India seeks to maintain the deniability in the pursuit of any non-military covert option for maintaing its 'responsible nation' image, then that is not a deterrent for Pakistan to stop doing what it does.
So any response by India will have to filter through the above-mentioned considerations and compulsions. That is the ultimate dilemma for the government.
Clearly another Mumbai-type attack will be rare, but in the meanwhile, expect many spectacular attacks to take place not only in the Indian hinterlands, but on the frontiers or in Afghanistan, targetting Indian interests and security forces. And responding to this new phenomenon will be the litmus test of the Indian government's resolve to fight and counter Pakistan-backed cross-border terrorism.